Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Review of The Marching Morons and Other Famous Science Fiction Stories by C.M. Kornbluth

Rampant commercialism, news rendered to entertainment, fiction without substance, corporate greed, social class issues—these are some of the problems being discussed in the 21st century. Not in fact new issues, it seems the technological advancements of 20th century spawned a variety of opportunities that allowed human vice to manifest. Thus, while not all contemporary fiction is empty (indeed, one can still find literature attempting to address said issues), one can go back and find them being discussed in genre more than half a century ago. The mode satirical, look no further than C.M. Kornbluth, his 1959 collection The Marching Morons and Other Famous Science Fiction Stories the reference point.

The collection beginning innocently enough, the potter Efim Hawkings is rooting through fields behind his house when he comes across a body in a tank, suspended in animation. Apparently the result of a bizarre accident at the dentist many years prior, the man, John Barlow, is welcomed to the future, and immediately introduced to the problem of overpopulation. A highly simplified version of Brave New World with a strong satirical twist, it is one of Kornbluth’s most celebrated stories, but perhaps not his best. A story with a very similar twist of fate for its protagonist as “The Marching Morons”, “Dominoes” tells of a greedy stockbroker and the lengths he goes to stay one step ahead of the market. Getting involved with time travel, he goes two years into the future to learn what’s best to buy and sell. He does pay for his knowledge, however—but not in a way most readers could predict.

One of Kornbluth’s less celebrated tales but one with more depth than “The Marching Morons”, “The Luckiest Man in Denv” tells of the difference in generational perspective in a setting featuring heavy commercial and housing development. While for me such stories benefit from more serious treatment, Kornbluth is able to maneuver his way through the (dark) comedy to touch upon some strong human points. A story about the consequences of exaggeration in media, “The Silly Season” satirizes, then puts big media in its place. Strange and alien things occurring—or at least seeming to occur, one dedicated newsman roams the country, writing stories from eyewitness accounts, enhancing, of course, as necessary to sell copy. The end of his investigation, however, comes in unexpected form.

Feeling like the work of a writer in creative despair, “MS. Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie” floats in and out of real and fictional worlds. Purportedly the work of Kornbluth based on notes smuggled out of a mental institution inside fortune cookies by Cecil Corwin, it’s a brilliant take on imagination and writing—after all, it’s possible one must live the blues to sing the blues. A unique story in the collection for being set in an interstellar war, “The Only Thing We Learn” features space ship battles and the like, but at heart remains much broader in scope. As Joachim at Science Fiction Ruminations writes, it is an “intriguing story about historical memory, the nature of learning about the past via literature, and finally, the cyclicality of time.” Quite a lot for a short little story—Homer in space—but does meet some success. Like “MS. Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie”, “The Cosmic Charge Account” is satirical look at the publishing industry. More universal than personal, however, Kornbluth excludes himself as a character, positing two witty professors assigned the task of creating a bestseller, instead. Goofiness abound, the lighter metafictional elements are not as impacting as the “MS. Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie”, but do cause some giggles looking at the production engine for mainstream fiction.

The penultimate story in The Marching Morons, however, is the collection’s lightest fare. “I Never Ast No Favors” may have had a serious point but is so esoteric as to befuddle meaning and purpose. A mafia-type guy is sent to work on a labor farm as part of his sentence, and there encounters the Strange. Drifting much closer to comprehension is the final story, “Remorseful”. A little self-pitying in its conclusion, the story nevertheless presents an engaging last man on Earth story that involves aliens in very atypical fashion.

The Marching Morons contains three of Kornbluth’s more recognized stories, “MS Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie”, “The Cosmic Charge Account”, and the title story. But they are not by default the best of the lot. “MS Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie” may very well be the best thing Kornbluth ever wrote, but “The Luckiest Man in Denv” and “The Only Thing We Learn” are both better than the two more well known stories. Regardless of quality, the collection presents an unequivocal view of Kornbluth's’style, his pervasive dislike and distrust of then-modern society for all of its developing vices, and the distance with which he perceives himself to have been from it. Given the fact nothing has really changed in the mainstream, his fiction remains relevant today, even if the window dressing is a little dated.

The following are the nine stories appearing in The Marching Morons and Other Famous Science Fiction Stories (For perceptive take on Kornbluth’s collection please see Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations:

The Marching Morons
The Luckiest Man in Denv
The Silly Season
MS. Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie
The Only Thing We Learn
The Cosmic Charge Account
I Never Ast No Favors
The Remorsefu

1 comment:

  1. I owned the old Ballantine BEST OF C.M. KORNBLUTH, published in 1977, for many years. A decade or so back, I broke down and bought the NESFA collection of all Kornbluth stories, HIS SHARE OF GLORY; THE COMPLETE SHORT SCIENCE FICTION OF C.M. KORNBLUTH. Used copies of that are currently selling on Amazon for as low as around $6. Add in the 4-5 bucks shipping charge and it's well worth it.

    Keep up the good work.